You’re probably not going to see Minnesota’s football team locked in too many three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-FieldTurf tributes to Woody Hayes, but Saturday, the Gophers at least proved their defense is catching up with the rest of the conference.
Stripped of a 50-yard touchdown catch by Paris Hamilton, a 50-yard scoring run by Laurence Maroney, and a pair of trick passes (one of which was in questionable taste), Minnesota’s 43-17 victory over Northwestern boiled down to Big Ten football at its most basic elements.
Minnesota’s flashy running game was running at half-speed. Marion Barber III gained a pedestrian 87 yards on 22 carries.
He surrendered large chunks of the workload to Maroney, whose 6.0 yards per carry was nearly two yards below his season average and heavily padded by his long score.
But in holding the 13th-ranked offense in the country to 267 yards, the Gophers’ defense served notice it can be more than just a speed bump.
“We did a pretty good job against a high-powered offense,” defensive end Darrell Reid said. “We’ve been working hard, and it wasn’t carrying over for whatever reason. But we’ve just got to keep working like we have been, and it will start carrying over like it did today.”
Minnesota kept it simple for the most part on offense, relying on a steady diet of high-percentage passes to complement its running game.
The Gophers rushed for 254 yards, well below their average of 378 yards per game. But quarterback Bryan Cupito was 12-for-21 for 155 yards and two scores, directing Minnesota to a season-high 10 first downs through the air.
Minnesota threw on seven of its first 15 offensive plays, including four of six on its second touchdown drive, achieving a rare balance that made up for a sluggish start on the ground.
“It took a little bit longer to get the running game going,” center Greg Eslinger said, “but we knew once we started running the ball, it was our game.”
The Wildcats went 44 yards in eight plays for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead in the first quarter but could only manage one offensive touchdown.
Jeff Backes ran a kickoff back 97 yards for Northwestern’s other score, but the Gophers controlled the Wildcats’ spread offense and held quarterback Brett Basanez to 121 yards on 13-of-26 passing.
After falling behind 3-0, the Gophers went 80 yards in six plays, taking a 7-3 lead on Maroney’s 50-yard dash.
Minnesota went ahead 14-3 on its next possession when fullback Justin Valentine scored the first of his three touchdowns.
The Wildcats had several chances to stem the tide, but they hamstrung themselves with mistakes.
Down 27-10 in the second quarter, Northwestern forced a Gophers punt for the first time in three drives and took over at its own four. But Basanez was intercepted by linebacker Terrence Campbell on the Wildcats’ first play, and the Gophers scored four plays later.
Television replays showed the interception might have hit the ground, but the play was not reviewed, and in the long run, Northwestern coach Randy Walker said he didn’t care too much.
“The interception was big, but we did enough damage to ourselves,” he said. “They were a better football team, and they deserved to win.”
Minnesota added its last touchdown on a 21-yard halfback pass from Barber to Jared Ellerson on a fourth down with 2:59 left in the game. But Walker said he wasn’t upset the Gophers tacked on another score.
After all, without at least one team breaking 40, it just wouldn’t have looked like Minnesota football.
Even if the Gophers needed a cosmetic touchdown to make it look like their offense was firing on all cylinders, they left knowing that just maybe, they’ll be able to win a game without it.
“We knew we had to step up,” cornerback Ukee Dozier said. “Every week, we’ve been getting started late. It’s Big Ten time now and we had to step up.”